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Star Trek Beyond ••1/2

Star_Trek_Beyond_posterStarring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Karl Urban
Director: Justin Lin
Screenplay: Simon Pegg, Doug Jung
Science Fiction/Action/Adventure, Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 122 minutes
Release Date: July 22, 2016


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(Dr. Scott Allison, Professor of Psychology, University of Richmond)

Greg, it’s time once again to boldly go where moviegoers have been many times.

Yes, it’s time for Star Trek Beyond – or as I like to call it – Beyond Belief. Let’s recap.

The Enterprise is docking at the space station Yorktown for some much needed R&R and resupplying. We discover that Captain Kirk (Chris Pine) has applied to become a Vice-Admiral, and that Commander Spock (Zachary Quinto) is looking to leave Starfleet to follow the career path of the late great Ambassador Spock. Yorktown retrieves a vessel in distress and learns from her captain (Lydia Wilson) that her crew is stranded on a planet in a nearby nebula.

The Enterprise takes off into the nebula only to be devastated by a swarm of thousands of two-man ships. The ships embed themselves into the hull of the Enterprise and the aliens jump out and kill the crew. The leader, Krall (Idris Elba), is in search of an artifact Kirk has secured on-ship. The damage to the Enterprise is so great that Kirk orders evacuation and separates the saucer section from the rest of the ship. Kirk and a handful of officers crash-land on Krall’s planet and begin a plan to find him and determine the reason for the attack.

Greg, your complaint about the last Trek movie was that it lacked originality, having been based on a story from the old movie franchise. You and I both asked for some fresh material in the next installment. Well, the Star Trek gods listened to us and delivered the goods in a big way. Star Trek Beyond offers up a fresh story loaded with new adventures, dilemmas, and villains. The result is a summer movie sizzler that runs on all eight cylinders and shines in every respect.

One impressive feature of the movie is that, despite it being part of a long-running “series”, our two main heroes (Kirk and Spock) undergo significant transformations. Kirk reverses his decision to pursue a promotion, recognizing he needs to be where the action is. Spock reverses his decision to pursue Ambassador Spock’s career, and he also comes to realize that Uhura is his true love. They come about these transformations in interesting ways, too (more on that later). The strength of the two hero’s journeys is one of many appealing elements of this film.

Scott, I’m truly happy that you enjoyed yourself at this film. I could not, however. This film was rife with plot holes and scientific inaccuracies. After witnessing what is possible with such films as Gravity, Interstellar, and The Martian it is hard to look at the most traditional of science fiction franchises and not expect that level of quality. This Star Trek is not the Star Trek I grew up with. It lacked a philosophical center that even the worst of the original series episodes managed to embrace. This was basically The Fast and the Furious in outer space. I was not amused.

Let’s take one of the climactic scenes in the film. Kirk and Spock need to find a weakness in the enemy. The vast swarm of ships under Krall’s control communicate in some way that allows them act as a unit. Long story short – they use VHF radio communication. This is just preposterous. Even today, we humans have abandoned VHF in favor of digital communication. To add insult to injury, the frequency that disrupts these ships is precisely the frequency of The Beastie Boys song “Sabotage.” So Kirk, et al, destroy vast quantities of the enemy by simply flying through the swarm broadcasting “classical music.” As I said, this was Beyond Belief. And that is not the most egregious assault on my willing suspension of disbelief. Virtually every minute of Star Trek Beyond contained just such idiocy. This was a literal face-palm moment for me.

There were plenty of meat and potatoes for me to feast on, Greg. For one thing we are treated to the trek universe’s web of warm, complex characters who, with humor and creativity, work together to solve life-and-death problems. So much of the appeal of the original series centered on interpersonal relationships, character dynamics, and (as you point out) philosophical weightiness. In all the Star Trek feature-length movies, this latter asset (philosophy) has to be given short-shrift or else critics will swarm and ticket-purchasers will stay away. So yes, by design this movie isn’t intended to make us ponder life’s greatest issues.

Yet Star Trek Beyond does manage to give us a villain who gives us something to think about. Edison is a disenchanted formed Captain whose xenophobia and paranoia transform him from good to evil. We see real world analogs in the current worldwide political scene. I love the way that the villain Krall was not a “pure evil” villain as I first feared; he turns out to be something far more sinister, a complicated man from inside Starfleet who was thought to have died a century ago.

In terms of mentoring, we have a nice irony — the person in the story who helps Kirk the most is our villain Edison himself, who during a fight with Kirk, accuses our hero of not really knowing who he is. This is a moment of clarity for Kirk. Edison’s words crystalize Kirk’s self-identity and pave the way for transformation. Another mentor for Kirk is his own father, who died when he was Kirk’s age exactly. I’d say this is more implicit mentoring from afar, the kind of mentoring that is always ongoing.

As much as I truly respect and admire you Scott, I fear you’ve fallen for a screenwriting trick. It’s called “bookending.” The only bit of character development for Kirk happens in the beginning and ending of the movie. We open with Kirk saying that he wants out of space exploration. (We never witness this. He is telling us, not showing us). And then in the ending he has an epiphany evoked by a single sentence by the villain. However, we don’t get to see that transformation. Kirk says it to the admiral in another talking-head scene. Hence bookends. We never see Kirk wrestle with these demons. We never witness his transformation. It’s all bookended by (literally) one sentence at the beginning and one sentence at the end. It is the weakest of character transformations that can occur in a motion picture.

And I can’t agree with you on your premise that “philosophical weightiness” must give way to action on the big screen. In all three of the movies I mentioned above we are given philosophical problems to contemplate. I demand more from Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the galactic future. As should we all. But the fact is that screenwriters Simon Pegg and Doug Jung and director Justin Lin (from the Fast & Furious franchise) opted to create massive visual effects rather than tell a character-based story. This is in direct response to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars franchises. Simply put, this is Star Trek in name only. When comparing Star Trek to Star Wars, Roger Ebert said: “I’ve seen space operas that put their emphasis on human personalities and relationships. They’re called ‘Star Trek’ movies.” We see very little of this interpersonal examination in Star Trek Beyond.

And I don’t know how you can call the villain Krall anything but one-dimensional and pure-evil. His entire backstory and his angst are revealed in a scene where someone reads his profile from a computer screen. It’s just the most trivial character development in the history of film.

Star Trek Beyond delivers the goods in a big way. All our favorite Trek characters are back and give us exactly what we want to see in any good Trek movie – terrific banter, good humor, fun action sequences, a fresh new story, an unexpected villain, help from surprising sources, and good solid character development. The CGI effects, director work, and cinematography are all off-the-scale outstanding here. Everything is running on all cylinders. I can’t give 5 Reels because a movie like this is summer popcorn fare, but it’s the filet mignon of popcorn, trust me. So 4 Reels out of 5 will have to suffice.

Our two heroes, Kirk and Spock, are once again terrific buddy heroes, although it’s probably more accurate to view this movie as an ensemble effort. In our latest book, Reel Heroes & Villains, we would probably call this group a police/military ensemble, to be precise. Anyway, our two heroes have all the characteristics of the Great Eight traits of heroes – smart, strong, reliable, resilient, charismatic, caring, selfless, and inspiring. Plus they transform themselves in meaningful ways, as I’ve mentioned earlier. I’ll give our heroes a rating of 4 out of 5 Heroes.

The mentoring here is subtle, yet significant. Kirk must find his true identity and without a father or Captain Pike in the mix anymore, he’s left to rely on memories of his father. He also fights a villain with a big mouth, a mouth that challenges Kirk to find his true self. This is exactly the kick in the pants that Kirk needs, and so he later decides to remain Captain of the Enterprise. Spock’s mentor is Ambassador Spock, who may have the same distant, indirect mentoring effect as Kirk’s dad. Overall, it’s clear that mentoring was not a central feature of this movie and so the best I can do is award 3 mentoring points out of 5.

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I didn’t find the characters in this installment of the Star Trek reboot particularly engaging. They were shadows of the characters I grew up with. Sure Simon Pegg put some iconic phrases in these actors’ mouths. So they sounded familiar. But these were just phantoms pantomiming echoes of long-lost heroes. There weren’t any real revelations for these characters. I can only muster 2 out of 5 Heroes.

I saw scant mentoring in this film. As you point out we didn’t have Captain Pike to guide our young Captain Kirk. The only mentors for Kirk and Spock were the lessons they learned from dead heroes. But we don’t see them draw upon these lessons and exercise them to some effect in this film. I can only offer 1 Mentor out of 5.

Scott, in the past you’ve advised our readers to “just turn off your mind” when enjoying summertime popcorn fare. I’m supposing you’re doing the same thing here. However, I think the legacy of Star Trek is that of a thinking man’s action adventure. We have plenty of movie franchises that offer quality entertainment without taxing our brains. Marvel does this exceedingly well. And DC Comics is hot on their heels. Star Wars has less complex character development in favor of action adventure. It’s also a beloved franchise that we’ve seen revived recently and held pretty much to its roots. This incarnation of Star Trek gives us something we already have in abundance: action adventure without a philosophical core.

I’ll give this film 2 out of 5 Reels because it’s good entertainment. It has good performances and decent CGI. But it falls down on basic storytelling and scientific accuracy.

In most of my reviews I relish the opportunity to lambaste a movie that falls down on the job. It is a chance to unleash the petulant smart ass in me. But this time I feel we’ve lost something of great value. In a universe full of brain-dead science fiction action adventure, Star Trek was a beacon of science fiction that is fun, funny, heart-warming, and smart. Something I treasured is gone. Star Trek Beyond was a final opportunity to return to the Star Trek Gene Roddenberry imagined. I’m in mourning because we’ve lost something valuable that we can’t get back. Star Trek is dead.

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